Saturday, July 5, 2008

Emerson, Walden, and the Alcotts on a Fruit Commune

This is not going to be a panegyric about the loveliness of Walden Pond, at least, not at first, because that's just not how my story went. My story begins in the rain.

We arrive in Concord, Massachusetts to a sodden sky. Determined to make the most out of the brief time I have away from the MHS, we squeeze under a tiny portable umbrella, keeping only our eyelashes dry, and make a very long, very muddy trek to our first literary site: the home of the Alcotts. On our way, we pause at a bright yellow house to admire it, only to realize that it was Thoreau's home. Just down the way was his friend Emerson, which on this afternoon was being mowed by a shirtless fat guy. We wonder if the shirtless fat guy owns Emerson's house and goes in afterward and drinks a beer and watches the Red Socks game, and if so, what would Emerson say about it?

When we finally get to the Orchard House, it isn't what I imagined at all. It's not yellow and sturdy like Thoreau's fine mansion, nor is it crisp and white like Emerson's, but is instead a looming brown monstronsity that leans and peels. It's the kind of house that needs a shawl around it on a chilly afternoon, if you know what I mean.

Inside, we learn that the inhabitants were just as odd. Before moving to the Orchard House, the Alcotts lived on a fruit commune as vegans (pretty odd behavior for the 19th century). May/Amy Alcott, when the fancy struck her, drew on her walls, mostly mythological creatures and animals but sometimes swear words, which made me love her. I felt especially close to Louisa May because she sat at a desk 14 hours a day, writing; being in her space made me feel like I'm not alone in the world.

After the Alcott tour, we take the notion to walk to Walden pond, probably one of the worst ideas we'll have this whole trip, because the rain soaks us to the skin, the chilly New England air adding to our misery. Our feet are soon soaked in mud, which has oozed into our shoes, and the path just gets longer.

By the time we actually reach Walden, I don't want to be there at all -- frozen, soaked, hungry, exhausted, swollen feet protesting this entire idea. But as we approach Walden, the rain slows, the clouds break, the sun plays with the light grey water. People dive in, splashing, laughing. Bullfrogs call to each other. And we reach Thoreau's house. Or, at least, what was left of it.

Like any good nerd, I get out my copy of Walden and read my favorite passage in front of his homesite. "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," I recite, "and not, rather, new wearers of clothes."

If this were a fictional story, a hush would fall over the woods and I'd somehow be able to channel the spirit of what Thoreau meant to encourage people to do (despite that he went home every night and threw dinner parties). But since this is life, a very loud family started yelling at each other in a mixture of English and a language I didn't recognize, the young boy in the family turning the last few feet up to Thoreau's house into a race, rushing over to the stones marking the historic site and knocking some over.

I consider at that moment that Thoreau was onto something in his praise of solitude.

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